Battling Alzheimer’s With Plant-based Foods

  • 5-7 Mins Read
  • Health Conditions
  • Written by: Shama Nimkar
  • This article talks about preventing Alzheimer’s with the help of plant-based nutrition.
  • Busting common myths surrounding Alzheimer’s.
  • How to lead a healthy lifestyle to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.
  • Understanding the fivefold approach to good health – NEURO
  • Relevance of good nutrition, exercise, unwinding, restorative sleep and optimization (NEURO) for cognitive functioning of the brain.

For an organ that weighs merely 3 pounds, the brain hoards an incredible one times 10 to the 50th processing power, making it better than any supercomputer found till date.

Our brain is what truly brings out our personality, making us who we are, helping us make the right decisions and shaping our lives at every step of the way. The cognitive functioning of the brain is vital to the rest of our body.

However, as we grow older, this functioning capacity of the brain tends to grow weaker, raising the possibilities of developing Mild Cognitive Impairment, which can eventually lead to chronic diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s etc.

Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) is characterized by memory loss, lack of judgment, problems related to thinking, language, and articulation. Forgetting directions, words, often losing a trail of thought, losing the ability to do daily activities like driving, calculating finances or cooking is common among these patients.

Today, we’re lacking in measures to fight diseases that affect the brain, especially Alzheimer’s, a type of dementia, which has a staggering 6.2 million Americans suffering from it. 70 per cent of all the dementias diagnosed today are Alzheimer’s, making it the dominant one. It is scary to know that every 64 seconds in the world, somebody is diagnosed with this disease.

With its rapid growth, it has become of paramount importance that we understand the reasons behind developing Alzheimer’s and keep ourselves updated with all the possible methods to prevent it or reduce its risks.

Dr. Dean Sherzai and wife, Dr. Ayesha Sherzai, with their expertise in Neurology, discuss the benefits of leading a healthy and predominantly plant-based lifestyle to fight Alzheimer’s.

The Red Line

While the consequences of leading an unhealthy lifestyle may not show up in your early years, they’re bound to catch up with you later. “The red headline is the line which most of us are leading. It’s the line that represents the cognitive decline that starts in our twenties, and it continues to go on, until we start noticing its signs in our fifties and sixties. People are then seen developing what’s called Mild Cognitive Impairment, which leads to dementia. The decay and decline starts early,” pointed Dr. Dean Sherzai.

The productive phase of the brain is known to be during the early teen years. This is when the nerve connections take place but if one fails to live in a certain way beyond a certain age, the cognitive capacity of the brain begins to slip away, little by little. “We start losing cells in the thousands, in our twenties but are unable to feel any effect early on because we have reserve; the capacity to withstand but the decay has started,” he continues.

One in every nine individuals are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s after the age of 65 and it is estimated that 12.7 million Americans will suffer from this disease by 2050. Furthermore, it has been reported as the most expensive disease to treat.

“There’s a direct cost and an indirect cost incurred during its diagnosis and treatment. Its indirect cost is the one that the families bear, sans any medical insurance. Today, the direct cost for Alzheimer’s is $355 billion and the indirect, another $240 billion,” he exclaims.

Busting myths around Alzheimer’s

It is high time that people educate themselves more about the situation and start taking preventative measures against dementia. But, Dr. Dean Sherzai believes that it is imperative to bust a few myths about Alzheimer’s to be able to take a well-informed approach.

The first myth around Alzheimer’s is that it can’t be prevented. “Today, a lot more people are accepting of the fact that it in fact, can. Another common myth is that Alzheimer’s starts with forgetfulness and the only solution to Alzheimer’s is the invention of medication or a pill. That is absolutely not going to solve any problem,” Dr Dean Sherzai says.

Instead, Sherzai emphasised on viewing a healthy lifestyle as a form of medicine. “If you eat healthy, exercise and stay peaceful, you’re reducing the risk of developing Alzheimer’s regardless of any factors, including your genes. In fact, only 3% of Alzheimer’s is driven by the kind of genes that are a hundred percent penetrant.”

Now, there is a certain type of gene that is associated with lipid transport, lipid metabolism and inflammation. This is the ApoE2 gene which can carry out these functions incredibly well but the ApoE4 can’t. “In such cases, it is advisable to buy foods that boost the lipid content in your body. It’s the same thing with other genes down there that you see. They have to do with lifestyle factors, such as inflammation, oxidation.”

Vegetarian foods such as chia seeds, avocados, olive oil and skimmed milk are high in lipids.

Pursuing a healthy lifestyle

Fighting Alzheimer’s is all about challenging your genes. Reversing chronic diseases is also determined by epigenetics, an area of study that throws light on factors like behaviour and environment being major drivers of modification of genes. As a matter of fact, in 2019, at the Alzheimer’s Association Conference, the plenary session topic was focused on how a good lifestyle is the best and the only bet now, to curb dementia. Dr Sherzai used a couple of case studies to highlight his point.

Case Study 1

“There was a study that revealed people who were genetically prone to dementia had a 60% higher risk of developing the disease. However, if these individuals with the poor genetic risk factors also led an unhealthy lifestyle, their risk of developing dementia went up by 360%. That’s the profound effect of an unhealthy lifestyle,” she states.

Case Study 2

Another paper that came from the Chicago Health and Aging Project, and Rush Memory and Aging Projects, two very important cohorts that study brain health and lifestyle, found a way of calculating a healthy life score with the ‘MIND diet pattern.’

This method required individuals to reduce alcohol consumption, exercise regularly, quit smoking and perform activities that engaged their cognitive senses. It was found out that people who failed to adhere to any of these habits had a 37% lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s while those who did, had a 60% lower risk. This is the first time that an official statement, verifying the advantages of leading a healthy lifestyle to prevent Alzheimer’s, was released.

Understanding NEURO: The five-fold approach to good health

Now, there are 5 key elements that compose healthy living and can be crucial in the prevention of Alzheimer’s.

N – Nutrition

E – Exercise

U – Unwind

R – Restoration

O – Optimization

“We came up with this self-serving acronym to make it easier to remember and implement to your life,” says Dr. Ayesha Sherzai.

These elements help defeat the 4 pillars of disease namely, inflammation, oxidation, glucose dysregulation, and lipid dysregulation.

The importance of nutrition in battling Alzheimer’s

Good nutrition can create a huge impact on your health. With the plant-based foods movement on the rise, let’s take a look at a few predominantly plant-based diets that have proven to be effective in preventing Alzheimer’s and other chronic diseases in the past:

Mediterranean Diet – A cultural diet belonging to the Mediterranean region consists of minimal seafood and poultry but generous amounts of plants and good fats. This region had the least percentage of people suffering from cognitive impairment or dementia. Hence, their diet is associated with reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s.

DASH Diet – This diet doesn’t exclude dairy but focuses more on plant-based foods, cuts down salt consumption and aims to stop hypertension, thus reducing the risk of dementia.

MIND Diet – It stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay

Diet. It is a healthy mix of the Mediterranean and DASH diets. It’s essentially all plants, greens, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds. It aims at reducing the consumption of saturated fats and animal proteins, which are associated with inflammation and oxidation. A study has revealed that this diet reduces the risk of dementia by 57%.

In support of eating right, Dr. Ayesha Sherzai says, “Several studies show that vegetarians had a lower risk of stroke. One study even revealed that they had a 50% lower risk of dementia as compared to non-vegetarians. Institutions like Loma Linda University and the Adventist Health Study have played a significant role in bringing out these facts to the world. It was great to study the Adventist Health Study community as the number of vegetarians is higher.”

“It is also beneficial to avoid processed foods as they are devoid of the micro and macronutrients and vitamins present in unprocessed whole foods. They improve blood circulation and reduce inflammation. Plant-based foods are not heavy on metal components like mercury and lead which are found in fish,” she adds.

Chia seeds, tofu, nuts, legumes, flax seeds, fruits and vegetables, especially antioxidant-rich berries should be essential to a diet that aims to prevent Alzheimer’s.

The importance of exercise in tackling Alzheimer’s

A good healthy and green diet needs to be combined with plenty of exercise for improved results. “Exercise results in neuroprotection and neuroplasticity, which essentially means growth of brain connections. Studies have shown that people who exercise, have larger hippocampi, two areas in the brain that are responsible for encoding memory and emotion,” she states.

However, it is important to maintain movement throughout the day as any form of exercise followed by a day filled with sedentary behavior nullifies all efforts. “Make sure that you move around and stay active all day. Did you know that leg strength is associated with a bigger brain? Skipping leg days is never a good idea,” she jokes.

Why you need to unwind for better brain health

Unwinding or releasing stress is necessary for both the mind and body. While the brain thrives on good stress, it is the bad stress that needs to be eliminated. Good stress is the kind of stress that pushes you around your survival, around your purpose, with successes and specific timelines. Bad stress, on the other hand, marks no specific timeline and can prolong for months altogether. “Now there are two systems related to stress – sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic system kicks in survival instincts. For example – when you see a tiger and run away. The parasympathetic phase is the growth phase which should be our goal,” she suggests.

“When your sympathetic phase tends to get carried on for longer than expected, you begin to constantly live under stress, switching on your survival mode. This can cause accelerated heart rate and anxiety which then takes a toll on your heart and might have adverse effects on your brain.”

Severe cases result in strokes and cardiac arrests. The blood from the periphery is taken away to the central systems and all of this may have a negative impact on your hormones. Long-term stress is also said to increase cancer risks.

“Thus, it is important to keep your stress levels under control. Meditation is a great solution to keep anxiety at bay. When feeling stressed, resort to doing things that make you happy. When you’re happy and joyous, your cortisol levels are lower, your oxytocin is higher and all the hormones are in perfect equilibrium,” Dr. Ayesha Sherzai adds.

Furthermore, detecting trigger points for bad stress can help you make conscious decisions that avoid stressful situations in the future. “Indulge in recreational activities and hobbies like learning a musical instrument, painting, swimming, hiking and you’ll notice your stress levels going down.”

Why restoration is important for optimal brain function

Restorative sleep is crucial to the smooth functioning of the brain. When we sleep, our brain cleanses itself. The human brain has complex janitorial systems that pick up the debris and all the by-products that are created during the day. In the deeper stages of sleep, the brain consolidates its memory and organizes itself.

“It’s impossible to focus without a good night’s sleep. Lack of restorative sleep can accumulate all that debris and is often associated with Alzheimer’s,” Dr Ayesha says.

How to best optimize your brain

You can optimize the cognitive functioning of your brain by stimulating it; pushing it to think more. Keeping your brain engaged, challenging it and giving it purpose can enhance its memory, further helping you stay sharp and focused. “Solve crossword puzzles, play card games, read books and give your brain a chance to excel in every area.”

With a holistic approach like NEURO, which pairs healthy eating with physical activity for better mental health, the risks of developing diseases such as Alzheimer’s can reduce phenomenally, thus enabling you to lead a quality life.

Expert Bio: The couple is known for their contribution to the field of medicine in developing preventive measures against Alzheimer’s. Dr. Dean Sherzai is a Behavioral Neurologist and Dr. Ayesha Sherzai specializes in preventative medicine and neurology.